The many challenges awaiting Pakistan’s Imran Khan

Abbas Nasir

As Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) takes the lead in Pakistan’s disputed general election, it is likely to face multiple challenges as a new ruling party.
The first and foremost will be to transform its head, Imran Khan, from the perennial opposition leader that he has been in his 22-year political career into a statesman and to chalk out a strategy to placate all the major political parties which have declared that the election rigged.
Speaking in a televised address on July 26, Khan offered an olive branch to the opposition and said he was happy for them to have any constituency investigated where they thought there were irregularities. He pledged there would be no political victimisation and all state institutions would be strengthened so they remain independent.
He said he would set a personal example of austerity and offer himself for accountability so that a corruption-free society could be realised and vowed policies to pull the poor out of the poverty trap. He also said he would strive to have harmonious relations with all neighbours.
Whether the opposition would accept the olive branch, remains to be seen, but at least initially, they all seem intent on demanding a recount.
“It is the dirtiest election ever,” was the first comment Senator Mushahid Husain, a senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N), made as initial reports emerged of a disappointing result for his party.
PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif, the brother and successor of ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reacted to the result, saying: “For even a ‘sulah pasand’ [conciliatory person/pacifist] like me, this is a bit too much. We reject this result.”
Shahbaz Sharif called himself a pacifist, given that he has long opposed the hard line taken by his elder brother against the military’s interference in the civilian domain and its alleged patronage of militant groups.
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari joined the chorus of those complaining of serious irregularities on polling day including alleging that their polling agents were kicked out of the final count sessions in a possible attempt to change the results at the last minute. It was not without irony that everyone hinted at but did not name who they thought was responsible: the military.
Many of these charges stemmed from delays in the announcement of the election result by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) which had promised most of the results would be out within eight hours from the end of the vote.
However, ostensibly the ECP’s state-of-the-art Result Transmission Service (RTS) crashed on election day and official results were severely delayed.
However, PTI senior leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi who, in all likelihood, will be taking up a senior ministerial position in the new cabinet, rubbished the allegations and termed his party’s victory a vindication of its long and consistent struggle against corruption and misrule. He said his party was ready to shoulder the responsibility the voters placed on its shoulders.
Indeed the former star cricketer and Pakistan’s 1992 World Cup victory icon, Imran Khan will have a heavy burden to bear if and when he becomes the new prime minister. First and foremost, he will have to ensure that he continues to enjoy good relations with the military which was seen as supportive of his party throughout the campaign period.
At the same time, he would also have to safeguard his own credibility by not appearing as the junior partner of the military. He will need to demonstrate he is the key decision maker as the elected civilian leader of the country. So far he has ably led his party; now he will have to demonstrate he has it in him to be the leader of a divided country.
Much of the developments in the coming days will be shaped by how strongly the opposition parties reacts to the election results.
Pakistan elections: Who is Imran Khan?
If the outrage is limited to news conferences and then all the politicians get down to playing their role in parliamentary politics, the new prime minister would be able to focus on implementing his wide-ranging reform agenda that prioritises the economy. Pakistan’s external deficit is mounting, its foreign exchange reserves dwindling and the value of its currency depreciating.
If the opposition parties opt to challenge the results, as Khan did after the last election in 2013, then the incoming government will be harassed and distracted by the turmoil that may follow. But here the military’s support will be critical. And Khan has no reason to have any fears from that quarter, unlike his predecessor.
With Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam in prison and the PML-N headed by the “dove” Shahbaz Sharif, and with several legal cases hanging over the heads of the PPP’s main leaders most notably Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s father and aunt, street agitation does not seem likely.
But even if complete calm were to prevail at home, the incoming government would still face a number of challenges in the foreign policy arena, including plotting a course in partnership with the military to try and convince the Taliban to remain engaged with Kabul via interlocutors. The Trump administration has been leaning hard on Pakistan to get tough with Afghan Taliban allegedly present on its soil.
Equally, efforts will need to be made to break the ice in relations with India and somehow engage with New Delhi in order to negotiate some relief for the brutally-oppressed Kashmiris. The new government will also need to ensure China stays committed to its planned $62bn investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is expected to develop direly-needed infrastructure for the 200-million-strong country.
There is also the pressing matter of getting Pakistan off the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list. The FATF had to put it on the roster on account of suspicions that some militant groups are able to use its banking system.
In his campaign for a “Naya (new) Pakistan”, Khan pledged to create 10 million new jobs and build 5 million homes for the poor if elected to power. He claimed that affluent overseas Pakistanis who, he said, have promised him to bring in billions of dollars in investment and expertise to rebuild the country. As the country’s elected leader he will now be expected to deliver on all these promises.
He will also have to face his critics who claim he won in a “generals’ selection” exercise rather than a general election. To address this, he should keep true to the promise he made in his victory speech and order an audit of the ballots in constituencies the opposition are claiming were stolen from them. Convincing the military to ease the pressure on the media could also help.
Whatever he chooses to do, it is clear that Pakistan’s turbulent politics is not likely to set sail for calmer waters after the July 25 general election.